Aidan Shipley is a Toronto-based actor, writer, producer and director.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
How did the world of theatre and film surface in your childhood? What creative activities did you most enjoy when you were a kid?
I grew up about 100 paces from the Stratford Festival and my dad is a theatre director and arts programmer, so it was kind of hard to avoid. I immediately fell in love with the theatre community and the love and warmth that came with it. Being the youngest child, naturally I was desperate for attention and needed to learn how to snag the spotlight away from my older and much more impressive siblings. I decided the best way to do this at the age of five was to start dancing in my living room to Al Green. Soon I and the neighbourhood kids were making up plays and performing them for our parents using their stationery for flyers and their basements or lawns as the stages. I started acting professionally at the Stratford Festival when I was nine in the Greek tragedy, Medea, where my mother murders me and my brother. Then I was cast as Prince Arthur in King John where I kill myself. Like I said, love and warmth. The world of film was a harder one to come by in Stratford because at the time there was only one theatre that would only play the big American films and whatever iteration of Fast & The Furious was out during that year. So, I really started to cherish the trips with my parents to Kitchener to see more independent films at the Princess cinema. I have them to thank for just about everything.
How did your development as an artist develop in your teenage years?
Although referring to myself as an artist still makes me uncomfortable for some reason, fraud complex blah blah blah, I moved away from acting and started to actively pursue dance as a career. I started at the local Stratford dance studio, OnStage™, and once I saw the movie You Got Served and the krumping documentary Rize, I was determined that I was going to be a hiphop and breakdance choreographer or a filmmaker. I moved to Ireland for middle school (the puberty years) because my dad got a job there and I assumed my dreams were shattered. Turns out, the Irish can get down. They had a bigger hiphop and breakdance community than Toronto at the time. So I started dancing with an adult hiphop crew and would do strange battle type shows in bars in Dublin which I would make my parents come to. When I moved back to Canada I started commuting to Toronto every week for dance and acting auditions which gradually turned into just acting. I started to make little documentaries and shorts in high school (usually as alternatives to essay assignments) and then realized how much I enjoyed being behind the camera and finding interesting stories to tell.
What made you decide to apply to film school? What did you learn while you were there?
I had to choose between film and theatre school. I knew that directing was something that I wanted to pursue, but once I realized I couldn’t do any acting auditions during theatre school it made the choice a little easier, as I needed the money I was making from the odd acting gig to help pay for university. I think film school taught me how useful deadlines are in the creative field. You don’t need to go to film school to be a good filmmaker, but it does give you deadlines you’ve paid to have and a large pool of people with similar interests who want to make movies just as badly as you do. The collaboration aspect of making films was my biggest take away. I loved it. Building a team of people who are incredibly talented in different, usually very specific, ways and bringing everyone together to make something unified is a challenging but incredibly rewarding experience.
You have experience as an actor, working with some of our country's greatest directors (Atom Egoyan, for one!) as well as behind the camera as a writer, director, and producer. Do you find that having had experience in front of the camera has helped when planning and executing a film?
Definitely. If anything, just to understand set dynamics and how to talk with actors to quickly identify the different ways in which actors like to work. Being an actor on a set involves a lot of vulnerability and can be quite lonely at times. You can often feel like a prop or an accessory to someone else’s story. Bringing them in and making them a part of the process from the beginning, even in preproduction, I think is hugely important. It’s a true collaborative effort, so if an actor isn’t on board with what everyone is trying to do, it often can show in the performance, in my opinion.
In many of your projects you have collaborated closely with Ryerson alumni Grayson Moore. What do you enjoy most about this creative partnership?
He cares. Deeply. He’s a true student of the craft and his attention to detail, not just in the making of the film, but to the characters, is incredible. Gray is also a very driven guy, and I’ve always been a pretty competitive person, so I enjoy attempting, often unsuccessfully, to keep up with his work ethic. We managed to make a feature together and edit it, with our talented editor Daniel Haack, in our shared apartment without murdering each other. So, if that doesn’t show compatibility, I really don’t know what does.
Your latest feature, Cardinals, has been a wild success, playing at a number of festivals across the continent, including TIFF. What theme do you see lying at the core of this story?
To me, empathy and communication are key themes. The film is really about how the consequences of avoiding or burying a problem can affect those involved and others around them. It was also really important to me that the audience could feel for all of the primary characters despite their, at times, irrational actions. To me, the best antagonist is one whose perspective can be completely understood, even if not condoned.
What were some of the greatest challenges of producing this film?
The budget. If it were not for our wonderful producers Kristy Neville and Marianna Margaret this film simply would not have been made. They allowed us to focus on our job while they were putting out fires and simultaneously shielding us from the smoke and heat. Not to mention stretching the budget so we could at least have 15 days to shoot. What was one of your favourite moments from the creation of this film? The first shooting day where Valerie (Sheila McCarthy) and Mark (Noah Reid) had a scene together. We’d seen them both perform individually, but seeing them act as these characters together was great. They were both so dialled in, that it really gave a boost of morale to everybody working on the film. This scene was also an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that we shot in my old high school gym. A true dream of mine.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to sharing my latest project, a feature documentary I produced called A Girl Named C. It explores what it means to live with the trauma of sexual assault through the eyes of a child and questions when the right time is to introduce the idea of consent to children. Meeting ‘C’, the subject of the documentary, and her family was a truly life changing experience.